Labelling abroad: How do you know what you’re getting?

* 3 min read

Holiday mishaps come in many forms. From lost luggage to mysterious tropical diseases, leaving the safe confines of Blighty can sometimes be more trouble than it’s worth. Take shopping: navigating the aisles of a supermarket in a foreign land can be a challenge in itself, but often the real struggle comes when you pick something off the shelf. If you can’t read the label, how can you be sure you’re actually buying what you came in for?

While this uncertainly can sometimes lead to happy mistakes, it can be more serious when it comes to crucial products, like suntan lotion. We’ve all heard enough scare stories from burned holiday makers who relied on locally bought sun protection for us to know it’s more than an urban myth. Fortunately, there are straightforward ways to ensure we stay safe. If you’re travelling in Europe this summer, by and large, you can trust what you find in supermarkets. Like the United Kingdom, all European Union member states must follow strict EU regulations with regard to food and cosmetics.

These regulations cover a wide array of items. With cosmetics, for example, the term doesn’t just apply to makeup – it means anything else that comes into contact with the skin. Plus, now that a lot of cosmetic products can be very scientific in formulation, the sector is even more highly regulated. Some of the ingredients you find in cosmetics products can even occur at the level of nanoscale (one billionth of a metre).

To give you a sense of the regulatory machine required to manage all this, just think – one aerosol can of sun lotion could be involved in up to nine pieces of legislation. This translates to thousands of pages of written legal material. That’s why the European Chemicals Agency’s (ECHA) headquarters in Helsinki, where EU regulation is managed, is more like a large reference library.

Fraudulent items do still slip through the net, but they are relatively easy to spot. The presence of blurred copy on the packaging or labelling is reliable indicator that a product isn’t the real deal. Copy written in a different language doesn’t necessarily mean a product doesn’t adhere to EU guidelines, but there is a standardised language for chemical ingredients. A simple example here is water, which will always appear as “aqua”. EU policy is similar for natural ingredients. Like botanicals, all natural ingredients are referred to on the label using their Latin name.   

So, you need only examine the packaging of a product for a short time to identify whether it’s genuine. If it ticks all the boxes, it’s likely to be of the same quality of something you might find at home.

But what if you’re holidaying somewhere more far-flung? Although it operates on a slightly different system, you can be confident in what you buy in the United States. Ultimately, the style of enforcement is different depending on the country, which is a key factor in how trustworthy products are abroad.  The law is only as good as the level to which it is enforced. If it’s not enforced properly, a piece of legislation might as well not exist. Take Spain for instance, which has strict anti-smoking laws which are just the same as the UK, but that aren’t really followed as keenly as in the UK.

When we leave the EU, it’s most likely that we’ll adopt similar legislation to that we currently follow as an EU member state. Re-establishing the same policies will allow us to continue to trade with other European countries easily. In fact, law-making around the world tends to follow this principle of piggy-backing anyway. Each state looks to others to inform its laws.

Recreating labelling regulation in the UK may take some time. New law takes time to bed in and there are various processes that must be completed before the legislation come into action. But British law is well-enforced and this attitude won’t change. Consumers will always have a level of uncertainty in an unfamiliar place, but in countries with well-regulated systems such as UK, the rest of Europe and the like, they can rest assured carefully crafted legislation will be there to protect them.